Laurent Morali: President, with an asterisk

The Frenchman is the new head of Kushner Cos. But how much power does he really wield?

From left: Laurent Morali, Charlie and Jared Kushner
From left: Laurent Morali, Charlie and Jared Kushner

“Am I the leader of the company?”

Laurent Morali, the new president of Kushner Companies, repeated the question, then answered without a moment’s hesitation. “I am.”

To many New York real estate insiders, that statement may not carry much weight. Kushner Cos. is a family firm with a storied legacy. It was started in 1985 by Joseph Kushner, a refugee from Poland who became one of New Jersey’s famed “Holocaust builders,” and his son Charlie. Charismatic and hypercompetitive, Charlie ran the firm until 2005, when he went to prison for tax fraud and witness tampering. His son, Jared, has been the CEO and public face of the firm for over a decade, and was expected to continue leading it for decades more. Then, Donald Trump launched his presidential bid. To the surprise of many, Jared joined the campaign as an adviser. To the surprise of many more, Trump won, and Jared declared he’d be leaving the firm to take a job in the White House. So here we are.

Morali is now the official head of the company. But he’s not a Kushner. What does that really make him?

Talking to those who have worked with him and know the company, you get the sense his title is “President*.”

“Laurent is going to operate as chief operating officer, and over time, more and more responsibility will be given to him,” said Matt Galligan, who runs CIT Real Estate Finance which has financed several Kushner properties. Then came the asterisk: “If Steve Roth was to put a call in, he’s going to put a call in to Charlie.”

Plus ça change

Morali, a France native and Wall Street veteran, has been with Kushner Cos. for almost nine years. While the family that employs him has been all over the tabloids (dating supermodels, marrying Trump’s daughter, etc.) Morali has flown under the radar. Few seem to know much about him. Prior to 2016, his name barely received a mention in the press. The father of three kids, he is not known as a party animal. But his low visibility belies his importance to the company, sources said.

“I think Laurent has played the role, in a lot of people’s eyes, as day-to-day president of that company for a long time,” said one source familiar with the firm who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Jared was running the Observer, he was helping Ivanka with her stuff, he was helping his brother with Thrive (Capital) –Laurent was was always the guy nose-to-grindstone running the business.” David Hochfelder, a former top acquisitions executive at RFR Realty who worked with Kushner Cos. on its first Dumbo acquisition, said he spent more time with Morali than with Jared over the deal.

Morali, who grew up in Nancy in northern France, came to New York in 2001 to join the U.S. real estate securitization team at Calyon Securities, a subsidiary of French bank Credit Lyonnais. The division specialized in complicated or otherwise unusual loans. One of the deals he worked on was a financing package for the construction of the Astoria Power Plant, which went into operation in 2005. The Kushners met him in 2007 to discuss financing for one of their properties. Although the deal never came to fruition, they took a liking to him.

When the company hired Morali in early 2008, he was tasked with handling financing. His first big assignment that year was to help save the company’s flagship asset, the office tower at 666 Fifth Avenue, which had gone underwater in the wake of the global financial crisis. Sources involved in the negotiations to bring in joint-venture partners and restructure the building’s debt, which ultimately allowed the Kushners to keep the building, remember Morali as the company’s key negotiator alongside Jared.

“Take someone and throw them in the pool, and you know pretty well if he can swim or not,” said Jonathan Mechanic, chair of the real estate department at Fried Frank, who represented the Kushners in the 666 Fifth negotiations. “Turns out he’s an Olympic-level swimmer.”

Morali’s role soon expanded to acquisitions, leasing and virtually any other major business decision. More recently, he orchestrated Kushner’s launch of a real estate lending fund.

He has helped grow Kushner Cos. into one of New York’s largest real estate investment firms, with $3.8 billion worth of acquisitions across the U.S. over the past decade, according to Real Capital Analytics. Its portfolio is now estimated to be worth nearly $6 billion, RCA data show.

Sources said that when Morali was named president in June, it wasn’t so much a promotion as a recognition of the role he had de-facto already been playing.

“There’s a lot of history with the company,” said one source. “He’s managed what has been a family business (…), which is in my experience is very hard to do.”

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Those who have worked with Morali over the years describe him as a diligent worker and skilled negotiator. CIM Group’s Jason Schreiber noted that Morali “has demonstrated deep market knowledge” and been a “reliable, collaborative partner.”A former Wall Street banker, he knows how lenders think – but that’s hardly a rarity in an industry where finance types have become dominant. More unusual for a real estate executive, said one source, is that he’s genuinely pleasant to be around.

And then there’s the French accent. “Whatever he says sounds a little bit nicer,” Mechanic joked.

Calm, pragmatic and generally described as charming, Morali is not unlike the man who hired him. “The reason he’s probably been so successful at Kushner is I think Jared took to him very quickly,” said Paul Amrich, a top leasing broker at CBRE who has worked with Morali for years.

“The fact is there’s a lot of people you will run into in New York real estate that are screamers,” another source said. “Jared is not that way. And Laurent is like Jared.”

Marty Burger 2.0

If Morali used to be Jared’s sidekick, that began to change last year. As the CEO spent more time with the Trump campaign, traveling to Anytown, USA with his father-in-law, Morali increasingly became the main man on Kushner Cos. side of the table. One source who worked with the firm recently said Jared has been all but absent over the past six months. And that won’t change, now that he has vowed to cut ties to the company and give up his real estate interests in a bid to limit conflicts of interest.

“He [Morali] truly has become the point person for all business and finance matters,” said Meridian Capital Group CEO Ralph Herzka.

The big question is how Morali and Charlie Kushner will divide their roles. Jared’s father has been mostly out of the public eye since returning from prison, but has stayed deeply involved in the company behind the scenes. One family friend told TRD that no one who doesn’t carry the Kushner name will ever really be in charge, and that Charlie will more or less fill the leadership vacuum left by his son and take on a more active role.

Others suggested Charlie thinks highly enough of Morali to let him take the reigns. Asher Abehsera of LIVWRK, one of Kushner’s partners on its Dumbo projects, said the two have a “foundation of trust that was years in the making.” David Schonbraun, co-CIO of SL Green Realty, which his financed some Kushner Cos. acquisitions, said he thinks other family members will take on a bigger role, “but not in a way that diminishes Laurent.”

Morali told TRD he believes his role will be more or less what it has been over the past six months: the official head of the company, working in close cooperation with the Kushners. He dismissed the suggestion that not being a family member lessens his role.

“I am not a Kushner,” he said, “but I don’t think I am being treated differently.”

Many say that Morali and Charlie will emulate Marty Burger and Larry Silverstein’s arrangement at Silverstein Properties, with Morali running the firm and representing it in public while Charlie signs off on any big decisions.

But there is one important difference. Larry Silverstein is 85, and Burger can reasonably see himself as the heir-apparent. Charlie is just 62, and he is only one of several family members who could be eyeing a more prominent role going forward.

Morali rose to the top because the Kushners trust him. But his rise also reflects the fact that no family member happens to be available. Jared is headed to the White House. His brother, Joshua is busy running a successful private equity firm. His sister, Nicole, only recently started working for the firm, sources say, and may not yet be ready for the top job. Charlie is still compromised by his rap sheet.

“It’s a fairly thin organization,” Amrich said. “There needed to be an outside person to step in.”

A Kushner Cos. spokesperson said that “the Kushner family has complete confidence in Laurent Morali as the longterm leader of the company.”

But what if Jared returns at the end of Trump’s administration? What if Nicole earns her chops? What if Charlie decides to take the top job again despite the criminal record? It’s possible that Morali is merely a regent warming the throne for a rightful heir.

For now though, the throne is his. “I’m the president,” Morali said. “Not too many people in this country can say that.”